Archive for 2016

Making Wine

December 1, 2016


Making Wine

So many passages of scripture have been used to illustrate key issues in theological education but Jesus at the wedding feast in Cana is hard to beat. How so?

Firstly, we should not forget the simplest interpretation of the act of Jesus. He saw a young couple caught in a bit of a social mess, the wine had run out, so he stepped in to make sure that the wedding went smoothly for them. That little act of compassion is described by John as Jesus showing his glory.

For us as theological educators, showing our glory is usually more about demonstrating our cleverness, the books we have read, the degrees and awards we have gained. But we best show our glory in the little ways we help students who are in a bit of a mess and need a hand with this essay or understanding that issue. Students understand this.

Secondly, the central act of Jesus turning water into wine is used by John to illustrate the new order of the messiah. The water pots were for the old ritual cleansing, the way of rules and regulations. Jesus turned their contents into wine, the symbol throughout scripture of Joy. We are to ask for our daily bread but Christ gives more, “wine that makes glad the heart of man”.

How we need to escape from the attitude that we are mainly there to enforce the regulations of learning and assessing and see our role as a Christian teacher instead as the bringer of joy to our students, by what and how we teach and who we are. We turn boring water into joyful wine. It’s what we do.

Thirdly, there is an instructive use of this story in Bernard of Clairvaux. He is writing on community in monastic foundations and says that we may do everything we can to create Christian community but it will never be enough. We still need the touch of Christ to turn the water of our efforts into the wine of true Christian community.

That is true of the communities of our colleges and seminaries. Indeed, it is true of all our efforts in theological education. Working hard to fill the water pots is important; praying for Christ to turn our carefully gathered water into the joyful wine of the Spirit in the hearts of all those in the college community is vital.

So, to paraphrase the apostle, let us take a little “wine” for our student’s sake.


Values shapers

October 27, 2016


Values shapers

Education – and so theological education – has undergone a pendulum swing, from a view of the teacher as provider of material to students in a lecture, to a companion on the student’s own journey into knowing and understanding. The famous shift from “sage on the stage” to “guide on the side”.

This movement from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on learning has generally been healthy. However, it has left a large middle ground between the two pictures of the teacher which has been largely un-explored. And this is a great pity since it is this middle ground – more confident of our central role than the guide on the side, and more relational than the sage on the stage – where we do our most good.

What occupies this key central ground? There are plenty of issues to explore here but one important matter is the shaping of the student’s values. I use the word “values” in the way anthropologists such as Paul Hiebert use it, the basic positions (including deep emotions) we possess, the fundamental attitudes to life, the way we ascribe relative worth to things. It is in being a tool of the Holy Spirit for the shaping of these values that we truly educate and so fulfil our ministry calling as theological educators.

What values? Nouwen has a clear answer to this question. Theological education for him is to help the students to have as central values, the love of the Lord their God with all their heart, soul mind and strength and the love of their neighbour as themselves. But as we come to this question, so we arrive at the influence of our own unique person on the students so, let me list from my own perspective, a few basic values (I have more and you may have others) to be shaped and honed in our students by our teaching and life:

  1. The vital importance of clear, careful and right thinking; that oratory and commitment are no proof of correct views but we must be committed to real study, fair exegesis and reasonable thought processes. This is as important for ministry and spirituality as for academics.
  2. The fundamental nature of a true, nurtured, relationship with God in prayer and worship for academic study of theology and scripture and for serving God in this world.
  3. The Christian commits to finding their calling before God and bases their life on fulfilling it for His sake.
  4. The unity and rich fellowship of all believers under the fundamentals of gospel faith (which Tozer says are “blessedly few”) is a goal for which to strive.
  5. Redemption does not make us less human but human as humans should be, so fun, joy, feasting, friendship and romance, indeed all of creation, are gifts from God to be enjoyed.

Old fashioned lectures can be wonderful experiences; walking with students through their journey into more understanding can be greatly enjoyable and profitable. But in both these activities and in many other ways (which include our own lives), helping to shape the deep life values of our students will probably prove the most influential thing we do.

The sage on the stage and the guide on the side has also to be the builder in the heart.

Praying in two ways

October 1, 2016


Praying in two ways

Theological educators have a tendency to relate their prayer life to their job, and this is understandable.

We often spend our individual prayer time in our study with the tools of our trade around us and planning the tasks of the day. And anyway, our job is our calling and a large part of our discipleship. It tends to suck in much of the rest of our life including our prayer. It may however be better to think of our prayer life as teachers as having two centres, like an ellipse which revolves around twin foci to create one whole figure;

  1. For the work

Petitionary prayer for the task and the day is invited by our Father. Often planning the day quietly in His presence takes place as a great request that we will be useful to Him and our students that day. It is a sign of dependence when we pray in this way, an acknowledgement that it is ministry, spiritual work and we cannot achieve student transformation on our own. It is also part of every ministry that the minister prays for those he ministers to and so holding up our students before God is all part of the job.

  1. Not for the work

And yet we are not just theological educators, we are God’s children first and this relationship can and should stand on its own regardless of our work. We are also often husbands, wives, parents and have a multi-various life before God. Yet even for our work, to create, sustain and grow something between us and God, a relationship into which we can invite our students is fundamental to our task. There has to be an internal fire tended (to use Nouwen’s phrase) if we are to spiritually warm our students. We cannot speak simply academically about spiritual formation. Surely this is the more fundamental focus of the two.

So, leaving the study for a walk in new surroundings while you pray, reading yourself into an incident with Jesus in the gospels, using an old prayer from a godly person of church history, enjoying a thought or memory in the presence of God, picking up a book by a trusted devotional writer, thinking on an attribute of God; we can learn our own ways of re-focussing on God himself.

Now, at this point I am very conscious of writing like a lecturer, making distinctions and sub-headings as if we understand issues by cutting them up into pieces. Prayer is complicated and mysterious and how often these two elements blend into one.

But maybe pulling them apart for a short while has been useful to a few readers.



September 1, 2016



Should we be anxious for the future of theological education?

For me, the anxiety comes from a growing feeling that, in certain areas and in certain ways, we are losing the ability to define or even circumscribe our calling. We are being blown about, and sometimes off track, by strong winds. Here are five of them;

The contextualisation of theological education into the academic enterprise of society continues apace. Of course we must contextualise into the educational patterns of the day but contextualisation is a two-edged sword and must include judgement on the academic culture and saying no where it is necessary to preserve the essence of our calling. There is not much “saying no” going on these days and an atmosphere of attitudes is often created which does not reflect our intent.

Globalisation also sometimes exceeds its validity. Western patterns of delivery now tend to dominate and determine what is regarded as excellent in theological education for the rest of the world. Globalisation is upon us and cannot be held back as King Canute tried to hold back the tide, but the structure of a teaching organisation, the teaching methodology, the assessment and quality control processes, in a specific place can be worse for being western. Must quality assurance be the same in Asbury, Amman and Abuja, enforced by the same kind of dean?

Educational skills are taking a more prominent position on the theological education stage. and enthusiasm for the tools, conferences and courses is increasing. This is right; we are educators, and the more educational skills we can learn, the better for our students. The more we can excel in our subject areas, the better for the college. But lecturers are increasingly thinking of themselves less as Christian ministers and more as educationalists. Ultimately we are God’s gift to the Church to exercise our ministry of teaching.

Money decides so many things these days. In some ways it always has. Many colleges and seminaries today are working on the edge of solvency. New models of delivery are beginning to emerge. Courses which appeal to a wider group of potential students are being used. It is good that we have skilled businessmen on our boards. And yet, in the current financial storms, decisions are sometimes made that are not so much controlled by our mission as by the balance sheet.

Loving corporate vision. It seems that teaching (and support) staff are finding it increasingly hard to unite in a common purpose and create a loving community of learning, maybe blown about by an unwarranted individualism in society and our Christianity. Not everywhere by any means, but in some places, we can see disputes and grudging fellowship, vigorous advocacy for individual agendas, even sometimes parties forming within staff. It is no way to model co-operative Christian service to students.

But let Paul have the last word. “Do not be anxious about anything but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.”

I have a dream

August 1, 2016


I have a dream

It was another staff meeting. We had dealt with a few new issues of our accreditation, worked on the brief for the modifications to the virtual learning environment and were discussing credit hours for non-formal and informal education activities. My eyes closed and my head slipped downwards…..

I was sitting at a blazing fire on the beach in the evening with my students. We ate together (of course), sang a bit, talked about this and that and then one asked me “What did you mean when you said in the lecture that the only task of the Christian is to learn to love?” They gathered round.

We talked of the theology of love and what it means to let our love be directed by our theology and our theology by our love. One asked what it means to love the world and yet not love the world.

We got on to relationships and friendships and just how complicated and rich it is to love one person all your life in marriage. The students were mostly young people on the cusp of maturity, responsibility, and a life well spent and they wanted to know what all this meant.

Then we talked about how messy love can be in a local church and, indeed what it means to love The Church, to have a love as wide as God’s for all his Church. We discussed how hard it is to love oneself as well as one’s neighbour – but how important it is.

The fire was reducing down to a quiet glow by now but they wanted more. They wanted to discuss what it means to have a love for God as the controller of all the other little loves; how to love God in prayer, in worship and in service and they wanted to know how that worked out in my life with all my strengths and weaknesses, times of usefulness and silly mistakes…….

Someone touched me on my arm and I woke up with a start. The academic dean was now talking about modifications to the marking scheme for third year dissertations. “Sorry, did I startle you?” my colleague whispered.

I stifled a long sigh and picked up my pen.

(With many thanks for the important work academic deans and directors of studies do for us all, making possible our teaching.)

A different teaching

July 1, 2016


A different teaching

In 1989, Daniel Ciobotea read a paper at the Indonesian consultation designed to bring to a summation the process discussing spiritual formation in theological education which began on the little Scottish island of Iona two years previously. One of the headings in his paper was “Rediscovering the liturgical life of the Church as a process of spiritual formation and theological education”. He commends the Eucharist or Lord’s Supper as a key element in this.

The place of the Eucharist in theological education practice is a difficult one to describe since denominational traditions as to its meaning and practice divide us. Ciobotea, for instance, was a representative of the Romanian Orthodox church and I am a Baptist. But I think we can all agree that associating the Eucharist with theological education has some solid reasons behind the idea.

Firstly, it is a silent teacher. Nouwen is famous for affirming that theological education is the wordiest profession of all. We study, speak, write, mark, words all day long. The Lord’s supper speaks but not especially to the ears (although the Word is read). The elements on the table, the sight, the taste, the touch, even the smell of the bread and wine are there for our other senses. It “proclaims the lord’s death” without words. What a relief in a typical theological college or seminary to enter silence and be taught without words around the table!

Secondly, it is an affirmation of community. In a profession that is running away from traditional community at a great rate, the lord’s Supper says we who are gathered here are one body because we all partake of the same loaf. You can do a great deal of theological education at a distance but you cannot conduct the Eucharist over the internet. To affirm community in Christ at the beginning of a semester in hope and then again at the end in thankfulness, is glorious.

Thirdly, it is a personal renewal ceremony. Seeing Christ crucified for you, experiencing the re-assurance of the forgiveness of sins and gladly taking Christ again as Saviour and Lord are the great spiritual actions of the table. How often the spiritual lives of students (and staff) become jaded and old in the intensity of handling spiritual things in a higher education way. It is not difficult for theological education to deaden spiritual lives. We need these personal moments of renewal.

Fourthly, it maintains the centrality of the Gospel. Students get to be very sophisticated Christians – almost as much as teachers of theology. They feel they have grown well beyond the milk of the Word, the beginnings of the Christian life, and are now complicated, sophisticated Christians, not simple Christians anymore. The Eucharist forces us to hear the Gospel again, as Christians, as theological students, as theologians and keep it central in our lives and our theology.

Jesus’s words “do this” are surely spoken into theological education.

Theology to live by

May 26, 2016


Theology to live by

I knew a man in Christ, born in the early 1950s who initially saw theology in a selfish light. It was a body of truth that he wanted to know. He was intellectually curious about his faith and read to satisfy that curiosity. He soon encountered difference and so theology became a way of showing that he was right and others wrong. Even with the thought that knowledge is power.

Missionary work in Africa (and reading Kraft) saved him for usefulness. In his service there, he saw that theology was not a monolithic rock, or a golden brick that he had to bring and give to his African brethren so much as the unchanging Word speaking into the changing and varied world. And behold, theology became mission. An understanding grew within him that there are (as he had been) those who confuse their local, historical, personal and usually biased theology with the Word of God and so anathematise others un-necessarily. So theology for him began to be a process that brings Christians together around the Gospel instead of dividing them.

Theology for him also became more and more connected with the Christian life. He read Tozer and saw that what we believe about God determines so much of our faith and worship. He stood back amazed at Gutierrez’s critique of his un-committed northern theology and saw it anew as that which has to be driven by practical discipleship. And not just the religious bits. Kung pointed him back to Athanasius, that God’s design for our human-ness is fulfilled in the Christian, so theology undergirds every human part of our lives as well as our faith. And Wallace taught him that it has a right to speak into his society, speaking God’s desires for his world, whether we are heard or not.

And as he travelled this road, he taught it. Slowly but increasingly, he taught theology to his students as the basis for their lives. He tried to make theology speak into their use of laughter, their appreciation of beauty, their friendships and loves – things they really cared about. Forgive him lord, he even constructed a theology of good coffee! When speaking of sin, he helped students see that it can be in institutions as well as in hearts and they need to do what they can about this. He showed them that Christ’s humanity means they can dance and feast, that the Trinity, properly understood is the basis for their prayer life, that the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper despite the raging disputes, can centre their faith and life, that the catholicity of the Church means they can read Bonaventure as well as Hudson Taylor for devotional profit. That the cross means they must engage in mission.

He rested in the great conclusion that we need to do theology with an evangelical faithfulness to the Word, with an academic depth of which we do not need to be ashamed. And also as the great task which orders and enriches the lives of those to whom we speak it.

And now and then, he invites other theological educators to the same journey.

Liminal Students

May 1, 2016


Liminal students

One of the fundamental foundations of good theological education is to understand your students and for most students, this means taking account of their liminality.

The adjective “liminal” comes from the Latin limen which means threshold. It was popularised by Turner in anthropological studies and, from there crept into sociology and then general usage. It signifies a state or position a person is in who has transitioned from a previous state and has not yet fully transitioned to a new state, position or status. In Turner’s words, it is “a mid-point of transition”.

Many of our students are in that position. They are leaving behind something and progressing to something new by their studies. They are liminal people while they are with us and will often look back on their time with us as a turning point in their lives.

It used to be a rare thing for colleges to accept students straight from secondary school but this is more and more common today as accredited degrees are offered. Such students are classic liminal people, no longer school children but not yet what they will be when they finish college or university. Increasingly students also come to us after some years in a job or profession, seeking to be equipped for a new situation, position or way of serving God. These are more settled in their life but are also liminal.

What are the usual characteristics of liminal people?

Firstly, liminal people experience excitement but often also emotional insecurity. The excitement is palpable at the beginning of a new year in most colleges. However, for our students it is not just that the past is receding (often with as much sense of loss as excitement), but even more, that the future after college is uncertain in many cases. Thresholds create insecurity which needs plenty of understanding, gentleness, acceptance, advice and mentoring

Secondly, liminal people are in a difficult position socially. As our students transition between patterns of biblical teaching usually found in our churches to a deeper and more thoughtful engagement with scripture, for instance; or as they transition from a church situation which generally lumps together the fundamental and the secondary issues of faith and practice, without distinction between the resurrection and a particular set of beliefs about ministry, for instance; they have to manage a continuing allegiance to what was before alongside the new attitudes, and struggle to continue a sense of belonging.

Thirdly, liminal people are especially open to intellectual newness. Just as refugees or economic migrants to cities are initially more open to the Christian Gospel, so our liminal students are often intellectually open, looking for new holds on reality, new patterns of thinking and living, new heroes, (although some remain closed). Our responsibility to such students is as immense as the opportunity they afford. We need to help them understand what is happening to them, to be careful, bold and pastoral with the truth, to be the example of the end of their transition -especially if that transition is into ministry.

Fundamentally, it is a theological opportunity we are faced with in all this. In their liminal state, we must help students construct a theology that helps them understand their faith, holds their allegiance to the Church, creates an intellectual pattern for their future life and guides them as they re-construct how to live, think, laugh and cry, and serve God in the exciting and new future they anticipate.

The Walking Stick Principle

April 1, 2016

walking stick

The walking stick principle.

The tendency in theological education is towards greater and greater specialisation. A typical college has teachers who only operates in Old Testament, or Mission or Theology. That’s a pity because there is mission in the Old Testament, Theology in Mission, and Old Testament in both. But the classes they teach, the conferences they go to and the books and journals they read, are separate.

It was not always so. Many of the greats of the past were comfortable in a wide range of disciplines within the theology umbrella. A Calvin or Augustine would have seen it as a scandal if a theologian was not also a biblical scholar and a philosopher, for instance, – or more likely would not be able to comprehend the difference. Now these men had bigger minds than us and were dealing with a smaller overall body of knowledge but that does not reduce the disappointment that we do not have renaissance scholars any more.

When I first arrived in Nigeria as a missionary lecturer, I had just completed a masters in historical theology and, as the youngest and newest, was given Old Testament history and New Testament Greek to teach. I am not sure how much the students benefitted but I gained a great deal. As they say, if you wish to learn, teach.

Which brings me to the walking stick of the title. A walking stick is a way of turning a hand into a third foot. When there is rough going, or when one foot is weak, it is a sensible choice. The hand is gifted differently from the foot but the circumstances, not the gifting, dictate the best usage.

So, don’t be too precious about your particular gifts or your particular training or your particular knowledge base. It’s a little cold out there away from your natural home but, if you venture out, you get to see new places and return richer. And academic deans need to feel a certain freedom in allocating courses as much for the sake of the teacher as for the sake of the school.

A definition of an educated man I learnt many years ago was someone who knows something about everything and everything about something. So, in complete opposition to our rush to be known in a smaller field, the more we simply specialise the less we are educated.

So, step outside your theological ghetto now and then, read a book written by someone from a different theological tribe, have the courage to go to a conference of theological strangers, be willing to teach beyond your borders.

Get an education.

The Covenant

March 1, 2016


The Covenant

Learning contracts are becoming more important in higher education today.

This is partly driven by the current emphasis on the student learning rather than just the teacher teaching. Constructivism and reflective practice are concepts which require clearer definitions of the roles of the teacher and the learner. Such contracts can be individual, especially at postgraduate level, or for a class or cohort together. They are usually very practical and spell out what the student can expect from the teacher and what the teacher can expect from the student. They help to define the relationship between the two.

Are these useful in theological education? Of course. Clarity of the relationship and expectations between teacher and student is a good thing, whether written down in a course document, agreed in the first class together or put into a contract.

But is it a contract we want? A contract is fundamentally a business arrangement and surely we want more than that. And there are other problems. On the one hand they elevate the idea of the student as consumer, and the attendant growth of a sense of entitlement by the student. On the other hand, they emphasise the idea of the college/seminary as a business. Driven by forces within our contemporary societies, both of these are getting out of hand.

There is a more specifically Christian concept for this, the idea of covenant. Christians know about covenants; they are binding expressions of love. God had one with his Old Testament people and then a new one with us in Christ, renewed as we take bread and wine. Christian marriage is another expression of the same concept.

Covenant for the Christian then is the ultimate expression not of business, but love. Love, whether hesed or agape, is not primarily about emotions (although who has not become emotional at times about our teaching and those we teach?). It is about attitudes and deeds promised. We can see it as possessing three elements;

  1. A selfless preferring of the other, their happiness and development.
  2. The giving of yourself to the other in reality and open-ness.
  3. That these attitudes and actions do not depend on the attitudes and actions of the other, but are from grace.

It is the experience of teachers who see the relationship in this way that many students reciprocate with commitments of their own towards you. I don’t think we can put all this on paper into a learning contract, but we can see it as our fundamentally Christian way of relating to our students.

At the end of the day, theological education is not a business, it is an act of love.

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